Straight Outta Compton has ruled the box office for the past two weeks, having entrenched itself in a very of-the-moment sweet spot of 90’s nostalgia and a long overdue national conversation about racism and police brutality. It’s by far the buzziest and most critically-acclaimed hit of the summer, sure to inspire countless imitations in the months to come.
The film, however, has also attracted its fair share of controversy, which is unsurprising for a biopic about N.W.A., a group that always, shall we say, inspired concern (I’ll never forget the Hebrew school memo suggesting parents refrain from allowing DJs to play “Fuck Tha Police” at their children’s bar and bat mitzvah parties). Many critics have also expressed their dismay at how Dr. Dre’s history of periodic violence against women is elided entirely in the movie. (Dre himself has since jumped into the fray to apologize for his previous behavior, seeking to contextualize it within his troubled headspace at the time.) Other outlets, including this one, have expressed consternation over the way the film depicts N.W.A.’s Jewish manager, Jerry Heller, as cheating his clients out of money—a charge that Heller himself vigorously denies.
And yet another piece of commentary deserves attention. It comes from Speech, the lead singer of Arrested Development, the kind of socially conscious hip-hop group that stood in direct opposition to the N.W.A.’s Death Row Records gangsta style in the 90’s. Speech believes that Straight Outta Compton exacerbates stereotypes of inner-city blacks as dangerous thugs, while true African-American revolutionaries—Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, the Black Panthers—are left to languish in anonymity, deprived of a feature film treatment like this one, which grossed $60 million in its opening weekend.
Speech is 100% right! A film about the life of Harriet Tubman would be incredible (I’m already thinking about Viola Davis’s Oscar dress). Ditto one for Rosa Parks! And a Black Panthers movie is a fascinating idea, too, provided it would depict them in all their morally-ambiguous, periodically-violent glory. I’m always a little wary of finding fault with something because it doesn’t happen to be about something completely different, but Speech has a very valid point in bringing up the vast wealth of African-American history that, for the most part, the Hollywood machine has failed to touch. These stories in particular have been neglected for far too long, and should be made into movies immediately, not just because of their entertainment value, but to illustrate the vast diversity of the American experience beyond accepted racial and ethnic stereotypes!
But Speech goes further to further make his point:
No one screams when Scorsese does a gangster film, why pick on rappers? Because Jewish people aren’t making these movies WHILE simultaneously getting shot down in the streets by their own kind, arrested in astronomical rates and their rappers literally getting assassinated like they were in a Middle East war zone…Behind the riches of every Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy E. or Suge Knight are quiet little Jewish & White guys in polo shirts that are even richer than them. They play golf and listen to Bach while they count their money.
Let me just say: I hate it when people cherry pick quotes to make a point. I also hate when writers—particularly Jewish ones—take quotes out of context in order to discredit an entire argument by labeling it as anti-Semitic. So for the record, I do not think that Speech is anti-Semitic; I am not offended, and I do not think that these statements at all take away from many of the salient arguments in his piece. But I do think that in making these generalizations about Jewish men playing golf in polo shirts, he is trafficking in some of the stereotypes he urges us all to eschew in the first place, so I will restrict myself by making a simple, but extremely relevant point:
First of all, after that deal with Apple, nobody is richer than Dr. Dre. But also, in the entertainment industry, there are many, many agents and manager-types who collect money, sometimes unfairly, from the artists who technically employ them. Many of them are Jewish, many—even most—of them are not.
However, there are also many, many Jewish artists in the entertainment industry who also have to pay their agents and managers, who as I mentioned, are sometimes also Jewish, too. Agents and managers take money from all their clients, white and black, Jewish and gentile, not because they are Jewish, but because they are agents and managers, and that is what they do. Everyone sometimes—even often—resents paying these people, and yet, that is the way the system is set up. The only way around it, is to become so famous and successful that you are able to form your own management company, a la Dr. Dre, Suge Knight, and Death Row Records, and then collect debatably-earned income from the people you, in turn, are helping/taking advantage of. This is the way the entertainment business works for every one.
So does Hollywood need to be more diverse? Yes! But believe me, when it comes to being taken advantage of financially, show business is an equal opportunity employer.
Also, Martin Scorsese isn’t Jewish. He’s just really, really short.